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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 42: Arizona State

It’s amazing what one win, a ton of returning starters and a little hype can do. For Arizona State, a season-ending win over Arizona, 18 returning starters and a little national love has the fan base dreaming really, really big — like Pac-12 title big, thanks to a pretty solid, experienced roster and a South division that seems ripe for the taking. There’s no doubt that the South is open to all comers, but beware: we’ve been down this road before. We’ve been here before with Arizona State, more specifically, but we’ve been here before with each summer’s under-the-radar national contender. We’ve seen Houston flop, Mississippi come up short, North Carolina fail to live up to expectations. We’ve seen the national media come together and rally around one dark horse only to see that team come up short. It’s happened before, and it will surely happen again. Is Arizona State that team in 2011?

Conference
Pac-12, South

Location
Tempe, Ariz.

Nickname
Sun Devils

Returning starters
18 (9 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 86

2010 record
(6-6, 4-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 72

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    U.C. Davis
  • Sept. 9
    Missouri
  • Sept. 17
    at Illinois
  • Sept. 24
    U.S.C.
  • Oct. 1
    Oregon St.
  • Oct. 8
    at Utah
  • Oct. 15
    at Oregon
  • Oct. 29
    Colorado
  • Nov. 5
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Nov. 12
    at Washington St.
  • Nov. 19
    Arizona
  • Nov. 26
    California

Last year’s prediction

If the offense is very good — not great, just very good — the Sun Devils can win eight games and compete for a very solid bowl. The defense can be that good. The front has a rising star in Guy, though it will miss Dexter Davis rushing the quarterback. The secondary, if Bolden has fully recovered, will be among the best in the Pac-10. And Burfict, the sublime sophomore, must be seen to be believed. It’s almost disappointing, in fact, that A.S.U. cannot put forth an offense worthy of this defense. Perhaps, however, things may turn. Mazzone has a wonderful resume of success on the college and N.F.L. ranks. Osweiler, should he grab the starting role, has the arm; he just needs snaps, it seems. Marshall has 1,000-yard ability. There are athletic options at receiver. The offensive line does need work — as it always does, seemingly, at Arizona State. I love this defense. I could watch Burfict play all day. But I continue to have reservations about the offense. All told, I feel more confident predicting A.S.U. to finish in the bottom third of the Pac-10 than I do predicting a bowl trip in 2010.

2010 recap

In a nutshell On paper, it was a struggle. The Sun Devils didn’t notch a win over an F.B.S. opponent until Oct. 9, when they knocked off Washington on the road. After beating Washington State three weeks later, the Sun Devils wouldn’t return to the win column until the final two weeks of the regular season, when back-to-back victories over U.C.L.A. and Arizona allowed A.S.U. to finish the year at 6-6, though home for bowl play thanks to two wins over F.C.S. competition. So yes, it was not an altogether pretty season on paper. In the background, however, you began to see the sort of talent that has vaulted this program into the national picture heading into 2011. The defense continued to rank among the Pac-12’s best, especially against the run. Oregon scored on the Sun Devils, as the Ducks did on everyone, and California dropped 50 points — this was very surprising — but the defense did a fairly good job holding teams in check. The growth of the offense was the big story: one year after ranking 91st nationally in scoring, the Sun Devils moved up to 27th, scoring 32.3 points per game. This team was close to breaking through.

High point A 30-29 win over rival Arizona to end the season. That it came about due to some faulty special teams play from the Wildcats doesn’t matter a bit. The best win on the season might have been the one at Washington, given how the Huskies ended the year on such a high note. A 42-0 win over Washington State gave the Sun Devils a 73-point edge over the Cougars over their last three meetings.

Low point In the what-could-have-been category: Arizona State had its own taste of special teams failure in a 20-19 loss to Wisconsin, as the Badgers blocked the would-be game-tying extra point with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter. In the same category: the Sun Devils held a second quarter lead against Oregon but lost, a fourth quarter lead against U.S.C. and lost and gave Stanford all it could handle in a 17-13 defeat. Those losses hurt, but a 33-point loss to California left us all scratching our heads.

Tidbit Arizona State has led the conference formerly known as the Pac-10 in rush defense in each of the last two years. In 2009, the Sun Devils allowed 108.6 yards per game on the ground; last fall, the Sun Devils allowed 120.3 yards per game. Over the last 24 games, A.S.U. has allowed two opponents, Stanford and Oregon, both in 2009, to rush for more than 195 yards. The Sun Devils have allowed 15 opponents to rush for more than 100 yards; four opponents to average more than 5.0 yards per carry; held six opponents to less than 70 yards; and held Washington State to -46 yards on 65 carries. Yes, that’s an average of -0.7 yards per carry.

Tidbit (experience edition) In terms of years along spent along the sidelines, Arizona State’s coordinator combination of Craig Bray and Noel Mazzone is the third-most experienced pairing in the country. Bray and Mazzone, with a combined 69 years of experience, were fifth in this category last fall, but staff shakeups at Miami (Ohio) and Boston College pushed them up the list. Your new leaders are Iowa’s Norm Parker and Ken O’Keefe, who have combined for 80 years of coaching experience; next are Ohio State’s Jim Heacock and Jim Bollman with 72 years of experience. Given the experience found at the two coordinator spots, it’s a bit ironic to find that A.S.U. has one of the nation’s youngest assistants in linebackers coach Trent Bray, Craig’s son and a former standout linebacker under Dennis Erickson at Oregon State.

Former players in the N.F.L.

23 S Josh Barrett (New England), QB Rudy Carpenter (Tampa Bay), DE Dexter Davis (Seattle), OG Paul Fanaika (Seattle), LB Travis Goethel (Oakland), DE Lawrence Guy (Green Bay), WR Derek Hagan (New York Giants), TE Todd Heap (Baltimore), LB Robert James (Atlanta), LS Brian Jennings (San Francisco), FB Mike Karney (St. Louis), OG Kyle Kosier (Dallas), LS Jason Kyle (New Orleans), OG Shawn Lauvao (Cleveland), WR Chris McGaha (Jacksonville), TE Zach Miller (Oakland), RB Dimitri Nance (Green Bay), S Troy Nolan (Houston), OG Mike Pollak (Indianapolis), LB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), RB Ryan Torain (Washington), CB Justin Tryon (Indianapolis), WR Kyle Williams (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Parts of Paul Myerberg’s trip down Grand Canyon (age: 16)
1. First 30 minutes of walk down trail.
2. Helicopter ride out.
3. Stretcher ride to bottom of canyon.
4. Feverish rest at camp.
5. Tumble down trail, suffering significant ankle injury.

Coaching

Dennis Erickson (Montana State ’70), 25-24 after four seasons with the Sun Devils and 173-89-1 overall after 22 seasons as a college head coach. In 2007, his first season with the program, Erickson led the Sun Devils to a 10-3 final record, the program’s most wins since 1996 and a school record for victories for a first-year coach. That team burst out of the gate to an 8-0 start, but stumbled through three losses in its final five games, including blowout defeats to both U.S.C. and Texas. Thanks to that stellar debut, A.S.U. was a quiet national title contender heading into 2008; however, a six-game losing streak extinguished Arizona State’s early-season hopes, and the team finished with a losing record for the first time since 2003. Another poor season followed in 2009, leaving Erickson in the delicate situation of needing to lead the Sun Devils back into bowl play not only to illustrate his first season was not a fluke, but perhaps to keep his job. He almost got there in 2010, but there’s no doubt that the Sun Devils will net at least seven wins this fall. Arizona State marks Erickson’s third Pac-12 coaching stop, following two years at Washington State (1987-88) and four years at Oregon State (1999-2002). A coaching vagabond, Erickson has been a head coach for nine different teams, seven on the college level and two separate N.F.L. stops. In the college ranks, in addition to W.S.U. and Oregon State he has spent at least one year at Idaho (1982-85, 2006), Wyoming (1986), Miami (1989-1994) and now A.S.U. (2007-present); Erickson is a two-time national title winner (with the Hurricanes in 1989 and 1991). As a pro head coach, Erickson spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98) and two with the 49ers (2003-4), without great success. But Erickson is a college coach, as his track record can attest. Could this be Erickson’s final season, regardless of whether Arizona State reaches its lofty expectations?

Players to watch

If nothing else, Brock Osweiler looks the part: 6’8, 230 pounds, Osweiler looms large even over his own offensive linemen, so finding passing lanes should never be a problem. What Osweiler needs is more snaps, as while last season’s two-game audition was a start, his lack of experience is a slight cause for concern heading into 2011. He takes over for Steven Threet, whose career ended due to concussion issues, much as he did against U.C.L.A. and Arizona a year ago: wonderful against the Bruins, when he hit on 27 of 36 attempts for 380 yards and 4 scores, Osweiler struggled against the Wildcats. That’s just par for the course for a first-time starter, obviously.

The pressure is on Osweiler to avoid such pitfalls and play solid, consistent football for the Sun Devils as the clear starter. He is just that, the clear starter, since understudies — and freshmen — Mike Bercovici, Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank aren’t ready for prime time. What is there to like about Osweiler? You have to like how he fared statistically as the starter, avoiding turnovers altogether and, against U.C.L.A., putting the offense on his back. You have to like his potential. You also have to like his composure and leadership qualities: you have to like these most of all, in fact. There might be a learning curve, but I like what Osweiler brings to the table under center. Perhaps, just perhaps, Arizona State will have a two-year starting quarterback for the first time since 2007-8.

Wide receiver Kerry Taylor won’t be missed all that much, both because of Arizona State’s returning talent at the position and his amazingly misguided statements regarding his former university late last month. A.S.U. moves on — happily. The bigger loss, in my mind, is that of senior T.J. Simpson, the team’s top deep threat, who suffered a torn A.C.L. during the spring. His role could be filled by sophomore J.J. Holliday or redshirt freshman Kevin Anderson; the latter held the top spot coming out of the spring. Could Kyle Middlebrooks play here? I’d think so, though Middlebrooks excelled at running back during the spring.

Noel Mazzone’s spread-based offense may not have an 80-catch receiver, but look for six or seven receivers to hover around the 30-catch mark. There will be a top target, however: here’s guessing that will be senior Gerell Robinson (29 catches for 387 yards, 5 touchdowns), a former top recruit who seems poised for a big season. He’s joined along the top tier of receivers by former JUCO transfer Mike Willie (36 for 442), who had a very nice debut season in Tempe, and senior Aaron Pflugrad (29 for 329). Additional depth comes from senior George Bell and juniors Jamal Miles and A.J. Pickens. I think the Sun Devils need Robinson to assume the top role, but the receiver corps looks to be in fine shape.

The big question surrounding the A.S.U. backfield: Will Deantre Lewis, last year’s second-leading rusher, be ready to go come September? We won’t know until at least August, as Lewis is still recovering from a gunshot wound he suffered in February. If Lewis makes a full recovery, he’ll again team with junior Cameron Marshall (787 yards, 9 scores) to pace this A.S.U. running game. This was a very solid pairing last fall; Lewis had a streak of three straight 100-yard games against some very strong opposition — Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State — and Marshall really came into his own with the added touches. Lewis’s injury is one reason why the Sun Devils are hesitant to dabble with Middlebrooks at receiver, as he’ll be needed in the backfield until — or if — junior James Morrison and redshirt freshman Marcus Washington show themselves capable of holding larger roles.

Vontaze Burfict is a shark. He’s a guided missile. He’s a menace. He’s a monster. He’s all of the above. What Burfict is, as of today, is a supremely gifted, athletically-blessed all-conference middle linebacker for the Sun Devils; what he can be, with a little fine-tuning, is the nation’s best linebacker — if not the best defensive player in the country. What does Burfict need to do to reach this next level? Just continue to play, quite simply, gaining a greater understanding of how to play the position with each game, practice and film session. But he also needs to do a better job reigning it in, avoiding the costly and avoidable penalties. He’s very close to becoming the player most expected him to be upon his arrival. What kind of player is that? A once-in-a-decade sort of talent inTempe, that’s what, and the face of a defense that takes great pleasure in stopping the run.

That’s what defines this defense at large, and the front seven in particular. Burfict is the star here, and the defender most likely to be found at the bottom of a pile, but he’s just one part of the larger puzzle. Once again, Burfict will be flanked at outside linebacker by Brandon Magee (73 tackles, 5 for loss) on the weak side and likely some combination of Shelly Lyons and Colin Parker (54 tackles) on the strong side. As was the case a year ago, Lyons and Parker should both see time in the lineup and as part of the linebacker rotation as a whole. Burfict is the star, of course, but don’t sleep on Magee, who might be the team’s best athlete — well, if we count baseball skills, at least — at linebacker. One final question: How many times will Burfict make you leap out of your seat in 2011?

How good can the line be? More so than any position on the team, the defensive front has the potential to really take a tremendous step forward. And this is after the line has controlled the line of scrimmage for two years running, though the Sun Devils do need to replace a key figure up front in tackle Lawrence Guy. They’ll do so with sophomore Will Sutton, a member of the rotation in 2009 who missed last season due to academic issues. Sutton and senior Bo Moos will start, but you’ll see plenty of the two leading tackle reserves, juniors Toa Tuitea and Corey Adams, and perhaps even some of incoming freshman Mo Latu.

Talk about a wealth of riches at end. A.S.U. has a pair of starters with all-conference potential in senior Jamaar Jarrett and sophomore Junior Onyeali. There’s a nice reserve in junior Greg Smith, who played well during the spring. Then you have a youngster like redshirt freshman Jordan McDonald. Add in highly-touted JUCO transfer Davon Coleman and you have a group whose talent is matched only by its depth. Jarrett (10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) is the leader, Onyeali (11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) the star, and the three or four solid reserves just icing on the cake. This front four is going to be very, very good.

There are some concerns with the kicking game, where A.S.U. must find replacements for kicker Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins. This won’t be easy. While Weber never quite recaptured the freshman form that made him the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner, the Sun Devils could take confidence in his ability to make field goals on a fairly consistent basis. Hankins leg kept him ranked among the top 15 nationally in yards per punt over the last two years. What will the Sun Devils get from freshman kicker Alex Garoutte? That’s anyone’s guess: some kickers come in and, like Weber, hit the ground running; others struggle early, as teams across the country can attest. Hankins will be replaced by local JUCO transfer Josh Hubner.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary There’s a short list of indispensable players in the Pac-12. Each team has one or two; one of Arizona State’s, cornerback Omar Bolden, suffered an A.C.L. tear during the spring and won’t be available until at least November, and even then we may not see the senior at full speed all season. This is an absolutely devastating blow to a defense that should continue to dictate the tempo up front but, once again, has significant question marks dotting the secondary. At this point, it’s only fair to move ahead as if Bolden won’t be available all season: that pushes a would-be reserve into a starting role at cornerback, which in turn affects depth at the position. That’s not good. Junior Deveron Carr and sophomore Osahon Irabor (40 tackles, 1 interception) will start, it seems, though either could be pushed out of the starting lineup by JUCO transfer DeMarkus Perkins, a late addition to this year’s recruiting class, or redshirt freshman Devan Spann. Carr’s biggest issue is injuries: his shoulder has given him troubles over the last few years. Irabor is a nice talent, one who would have played as a true freshman if his own injuries hadn’t got in the way but came up with a commendable year as a redshirt freshman. There are fewer questions at safety, at least in terms of locating a starting pair: senior Eddie Elder (64 tackles, 2 interceptions) is a team leader at strong safety, while Clint Floyd (30 tackles) has enough experience to justify his move into the starting lineup. Looking for a reason why A.S.U. might fall short of expectations? Take a glance at this secondary, which was already a concern prior to Bolden’s knee injury. Now, with experience depth at a premium, it’s the Achilles heel of the defense — and the team as a whole, it could be said.

Offensive line Bonus section! With the overwhelming majority of last season’s contributors back in the fold, we could see even more improvement from the Arizona State offensive line. This is a group paced by senior center Garth Gerhart, one of the Pac-12’s best linemen regardless of position and a national award candidate heading into the fall. Gerhart, a multiple-year starter, is the anchor up front. Sophomore Evan Finkenberg was thrown into tough circumstances on the blind side as a freshman and fared well, so he has a bright future. I’m not sure if even A.S.U. knows how the rest of the line will shake out. Can junior Andrew Sampson play with more consistency at right guard? What about left guard and right tackle? It’s a battle of seniors at each spot: either Adam Tello or Mike Marcisz at left guard and either Dan Knapp or Aderious Simmons at right tackle. Tello is a guy who many expected to step into a starting role years ago; that hasn’t turned out to be the case. One thing this line does seem to have is better depth, but that doesn’t mean as much if the Sun Devils can’t locate a stout starting five.

Game(s) to watch

We’ll know by October whether the hype surrounding Arizona State was justified. A nationally-ranked team would beat a very good Missouri squad at home and take care of business at Illinois; a good team would probably split; and a pretender would lose both. There aren’t very many breathers on this schedule, minus U.C. Davis, Washington State and Colorado, so Arizona State can’t afford to encounter the sort of lulls that have derailed the Sun Devils over the last few years.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Why Arizona State deserves an early-season national ranking:

1. As a whole, the offense should be just as good, if not better, in its second season under Noel Mazzone.

2. Osweiler has the makings of a very nice college quarterback.

3. If Deantre Lewis returns, the running game should continue to rack up yardage.

4. The receiver corps is deep, and should be better than it was a year ago if the Sun Devils can find a viable deep threat to replace Simpson.

5. The front seven is great; the defensive line is deep and the linebacker corps, paced by Burfict, is the team’s strength.

Why Arizona State doesn’t warrant an early-season national ranking:

1. The offensive line has the makings of a solid unit but has question marks at left guard and right tackle.

2. Without Bolden at cornerback, the secondary could be a major sticking point all season.

3. At this point, the kicking game must be viewed as a weakness.

4. The schedule might end smoothly for Arizona State, but it begins with a bang.

What you see here is a team that deserves some of the hype but not all this hype — not in my mind, when there are many, many teams with far fewer issues heading into the season. What I see is a team that after three years of building to this point has the pieces in place to absolutely return to bowl play and challenge for a South division title. What I don’t see is a Top 25 team, as many have suggested. Is this a team that can go into Auzten Stadium and knock off the Ducks? Is this a team that’s going to take four, let alone five of six against Missouri, Illinois, U.S.C., Oregon State, Utah and Oregon? Sorry, but I don’t see it. Again, what I see is a very good team, led by a strong front seven and a growing offense, and one that should very much challenge for eight wins and a Pac-12 South title. And that’s not too bad for a program that hasn’t been much of anything for three years, even if the fan base is expecting greatness from their Sun Devils. Just try to keep everything in perspective: get on the bandwagon, but don’t ask for too much. As you can see above, there are more strengths than weaknesses. The Sun Devils are good, just not great.

Dream season Remember what I said about A.S.U. being good, just not great? Scratch that, if you would. These Sun Devils are great: 11-1, 8-1 in the Pac-12 and in B.C.S. play.

Nightmare season Not only are the Sun Devils not good, they’re a supreme disappointment. A 1-5 start, which includes only a win over U.C. Davis, is followed by a 3-3 finish.

In case you were wondering

Where do Arizona State fans congregate? A number of solid options for the Web-savvy A.S.U. fan: ASU Devils and Devils Digest for recruiting coverage; Cactus Ranch as a solid independent site; and Pitchfork Nation and House of Sparky for the blog lovers.

Word Count

Through 79 teams 236,796.

Up Next

Who is No. 41? You can park and ride to home games at tomorrow’s university: just drop your car off at Lot 89 at the corner of Mt. Hope Road and Farm Lane and hop aboard. Parking is free, but the shuttle’s going to cost you $4 round-trip.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. PackHowler says:

    Michigan State is up next.

  2. Eksynyt says:

    Wow Michigan State next? This is why I like Paul. I’m flabbergasted by these rankings but he backs up why he puts these teams in their places so well.

    And LOL at Paul’s arbitrary top 5 list. Best one yet!

  3. M Meyer says:

    You break down the stats from last year, and Michigan State was one of the luckiest teams in the nation. You’d expect them to fall back to average. Well done, and that shows just how much thought and research goes into this.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    Excellent preview. As noted there are issues on the offensive line. When a team makes a big move forward, there is usually a solid, veteran offensive line returning- see Mississippi State last year.

  5. Dave says:

    Have a feeling I know what the MSU season low point is going to be…that bowl loss to ‘Bama was one of the most pathetic showings I have ever seen from a conference “champ”…

  6. [...] Paul Myerberg’s epic countdown rolls on and Michigan State will be number 41 according to the clue at the end of the #42 Arizona State preview.   Northwestern will likely be coming in the next week or so, but at least one outlet has NU ranked higher than Sparty in 2011. [...]

  7. Notrefrog says:

    No kidding, that top 5 list was awesome.

  8. CJ says:

    My older brother just graduated from ASU, and he has told me many times, with a straight face, that they are going to not only win the Pac-12, but also win the national championship. I don’t believe this, but my brother has definitely bought into the hype.

  9. Michael says:

    I have to say that as much as the preseason hype for the Sun Devils is based on how good people think they are, so much of it seems to stem from a disdain for the presence of the Utes. Talking with fans of the Pac Ten schools, they really seem to think the Utes are going to ‘be exposed’ once they have to play a Pac 12 schedule.

    Fans of the Pac Ten schools are really counting on the Sun Devils to keep the Utes out of the first conference championship game.

  10. David says:

    That top 5 list caused me to have a flashback which combines the Brady Bunch’s Grand Canyon trip with their Hawai’i trip.

    Was the 16-year old Paul carrying a certain bad luck idol?

  11. baal says:

    absolutely the worst analysis ever written!

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